On Anthony Bourdain: We Were Not Made to be Famous

To say that I am a big Anthony Bourdain fan would be an understatement. I […]

Sarah Condon / 6.8.18

To say that I am a big Anthony Bourdain fan would be an understatement. I love everything he ever did. When my college boyfriend declared Alton Brown more entertaining and called Bourdain “depressing,” I was like: It’s not me, it’s you. We have to break up now.

I remember watching his episode of a pig being slaughtered in Louisiana. The cameraman captured the gathered faithful reciting the Lord’s Prayer right before the pistol rose to the head of the soon-to-be-eaten animal. Immediately following, the zydeco music kicked up. And I thought to myself, “That’s how we do it down here, folks.”

Of course, anyone with a nose to smell and a tongue to taste knew that Bourdain lived in an ocean of struggle. He could be angry, despondent, and euphoric all in one plate of food. It’s part of the reason we loved him. He brought other worlds into our living room without any pleasant edits. And that included the profound pain of his own heart.

I have written about suicide before for Mockingbird. I come from a family ravaged by it. But I do not want to address how Bourdain died so much as what I suspect really killed him.

I have a mentor who often says about ordained people, “Something bad happened to you if you want to be a priest.” Meaning that people are attracted to ministry as a means by which to fix what is broken. Maybe we come from tough family situations and/or we have an endless and neurotic need for love and attention.

I was once in a clergy conference where the speaker asked how many of the people in the room had a mother who often “took to bed” or who was actively an alcoholic. In other words, how many people had mothers that they felt they needed to take care of when they were children? Easily 75% of the people in the room raised their hands.

For these people, there was the hope that the Church might be the Mother that would care for them. This is, of course, not at all the way ministry works.

And it is not the way fame works, either. I do not know specifically what haunted Anthony Bourdain. Did he have a need for affirmation or encouragement? Or perhaps it was just the overwhelmingly human need for love. Perhaps he was caught in a black hole of despair that he saw no way out of. But fame, like the ministry, is not going to heal any deep wounds. In fact, it will exacerbate both.

We all long for fame on some level or another. Maybe we won’t be Anthony Bourdain. Perhaps we would really love to be the head of a company. Or the head pastor of our church. Or have more followers on social media. Or be the PTA president. But fame does not do what it promises. Because fame has an unquenchable desire to be fed. It solves none of life’s problems. Fame will take your mental illness, insecurities, and addictions and scare the hell out of you. Because now, instead of just you carrying the burden of yourself, it is entirely possible that the whole world will find out your deepest, darkest secrets. I cannot imagine the stress.

In this way, suicide makes an odd kind of sense. It is that exposure of all our brokenness to the world. It is this way of saying, “I can’t hold it all together. I give up completely. And I will do it in front of all you who have asked far too much of me.” Certainly, not every famous person will die by suicide. But I believe we would be shocked to know how many of them have considered it. 

In truth, we were not made for fame. Being famous ultimately means being responsible for other people’s lives. It means taking on the pressures of the world. And it means being loved by people who do not really love you. Because they do not really know you. And this is the worst kind of love to be offered.